Dawn Alpenglow, Barosa, Pyrenees

Touching the Light – New Horizons

Most artists will say that they feel most connected with their current work.  I suppose it is a bit like a band playing a live gig – the audience always wants to hear the ‘greatest hits’, whereas the artist wants to play the new stuff. What does that mean for me as a photographer?

Last week, when presenting “Touching the Light”, my ‘greatest hits’, my landscapes and light images made in the mountains, I felt just a little disconnected, as if now is the time to change things around a little. It wasn’t so much about the talk; it was more about recognising where I am and where I have come from as an artist.

Does that mean I have fallen out of love with landscapes and light? Does it mean that I have changed my approach or am no longer motivated by the wilderness? Of course not. It is just that I am nowadays in the mountains much less frequently than I used to be, and there is a much broader portfolio occupying my creative attention.

Let me take you back on a little potted history: My photography grew up in the mountains. From the age of sixteen I was passionate about the outdoors and carried my camera on every excursion to the hills. I realised very quickly that it was not about getting the photograph. It was about feeling the experience and making images that went some way to recreating for me what I felt, not just what I saw. I taught myself to respond to the rhythms of the land and the light, working instinctively with the landscape and intuitively with simple cameras, inspired by the work of the late and great Galen Rowell. Mountain light – famously ‘branded’ by Rowell – became the thing I was known for. In 1999 it became “Touching the LightTTL“, both a concept for working with light as a raw material and a photographic acronym; my own brand, which has stayed with me for 15 years.

In 2004 I wrote the core principles of TTL as a method, published in the book “Photographing Changing Light”. I remember thinking that there was really no method; I just went for a walk in the mountains and responded to what I saw. But my publisher wanted a practical guide that included f-stops and other numbers. I resisted. Rowell himself wrote about the futility of describing a car journey in terms of clutch depressions and gear shifts.

The title of that book changed from “Touching the Light” to something considered less esoteric, more marketable. But I stayed with my own concept, drawing on my own experiences, not from any other sources I had read at the time. I wrote about principles and mindset, letting anecdotes enrich the images.

  • Light is the thing: Being aware of light first; if we set out to photograph light then places and things are unimportant;
  • Immerse yourself: Immersing ourselves totally in our environment or activity so we can become at one with the present;
  • Work at the speed of light: Working fast and responsively when mountain light breaks fast, slowing down in the still of the moment;
  • Go with the flow: Letting our instincts take us, trusting our perceptions to explore the world visually, going on hunches where the light might happen;

These four pillars of my own approach could be described as Mindfulness – an acutely-conscious awareness of the present moment, which derives in part from Buddhist or Eastern philosophies and from mainstream psychology. I have always worked this way. It is the way I know. The mountains were the playground where my deepest experiences played themselves out.

Despite my photographing many other subjects over many years, I became defined by my speciality to a point where other styles became submerged. Photographically and externally at least, mountain light was all there was. The mountain experience became my subject. Touching the Light.

Then in 2006 I went through a life-changing minor epic whilst climbing Mulhacén, the highest peak on mainland Spain. During the physical illness and eighteen months of emotional dissonance that followed, I made only sporadic visits to the mountains and my photography came to a virtual standstill. I realised that if I was not going to the hills I was not making photographs. It was a thought I couldn’t hold.

For many months I searched for an outlet. But it was in vain because, in common with my natural approach to photography, “the harder I look, less I see”. The opportunity I needed came late in 2007 when I was invited to start a 365 Project, a challenge to make a photograph each day for the year in 2008.

I knew that I had to break my own mould. I couldn’t indulge the ‘speciality’ and if I tried to plan my way through 365, conceptualising images, I knew I would end up emulating others and, most importantly, coming from my head and not from my heart. My mountain photography had always been spontaneous and responsive. Why should this be any different?

So I embarked on “a journey of self-discovery and everyday observation”, keen to learn about myself and to notice what I was seeing. 2350 days later, I am still going, more a way of life now than a ‘project’.  It is a “Project Infinity” – I don’t see myself ever stopping. Photography is fully integrated into everyday life just as it always was a natural part of walking, climbing and being in the mountains. My work has become a stream of moments and insights.

My mindful philosophy has taken me on an exploration of so many different forms of expression, bringing together my interests in psychology and spiritual growth. I have gone right back to the basics of seeing and the emotional connections to visual design, if you like, throwing away all my old preconceptions about photography. I have engaged critically with ‘camera club’ work, with classic images from Cartier-Bresson, Stieglitz, Weston and Lange, and with Miksang and other contemplative styles.

In short, although the journey has often felt purposeless and confused, cleaning out the creative workings of my own mind has been a freeing and refreshing exercise

My mountain work becomes current again when I embark on an expedition, such as AtoM 2011 across the Pyrenees HRP or when I feel connected to a new place such as in Las Alpujarras of Spain. In both cases, however, I feel I have been able to whole build a body of work ranging from landscapes and light to portraits, from abstract art to nature. It is important to me to have expanded my repertoire.

So, to return to the start, I have resolved to rework “Touching the Light” as a presentation, to make it complete as a philosophical work and to include something from all my genres and styles. To that might take some time, but it will feel right when it is done.

And there will be new presentations – contemplative photography, Las Alpujarras – to complement those such as AtoM 2011, which have plenty left in them yet. And who knows, the new TTL might also last or twenty years. It certainly is not the end of the brand.

… Ken
June 2014